An Obituary in Exile: Remembering a Neighbourhood Panditji

I remember the dates of the wars but I don't remember the birth date of my grandfather. Our life stories are just footnotes to the greater story of the conflicts that shape our world, writes Vinayak Razdan.

October, 2014

There was a storm last night. One of the windowpanes broke. It had been accidentally left open overnight. Grandmother rang me up on the phone to tell me all about it.

“He would have given me an earful. He would have said, ‘Ye kus taavan sunuth!’ (What have you done now!)”

It’s been about a year now. I guess she still misses him.

My father wanted me to write an obituary. I couldn’t. I couldn’t sum up a life in just a few words. In the end, grandfather got an obit, the kind that has become the default for most Pandits of his generation who die outside of Kashmir in exile, life summed up with a few lines in a local daily: “He was a Karamyogi…we remember…Papaji”.

I try to remember ‘Daddy’. The memory that is most lucid is of him sitting down to eat. The rice in his plate doused generously in lassi. A man of fine eating manner, his plate, even if too watery, was always neat. It was almost like watching a ritual. At the end of the rite, he would wash his hands in the plate, take a sip of water, swish it in his mouth, hold out his right hand like a little wedge, sprout out the water onto it and into the plate, a little waterfall on his hand, all without a sound. Then he would take out his dentures, clean them up a bit by pouring some water on them and then put them back into a little yellow plastic container. It was a ritual he followed for most of his life.

My grandfather had no teeth. I laugh a little when I hear stories about how peaceful Kashmir was in the old days. Indeed, a toothless peaceful Kashmir. Somewhere in 1970s, much before I was born, grandfather lost his front incisors in a neighbourhood fight. It wasn’t his fight. Two Muslim neighbours were fighting over the right to erect a fence. My grandfather, like a good neighbourhood ‘pandit ji‘, was trying to pacify them. The issue heated up. One of the guys swung a bamboo stick but missed the intended target, instead hitting my grandfather on the mouth. Two of his teeth popped out and onto the ground. Blood sprouted out of his mouth like a fountain of Shalimar in spring. My grandfather was afraid of the sight of blood for the rest of his life. He would pass out if he saw too much blood. Many decades later, in exile, he once witnessed a bus accident in Jammu. We had to collect him from the hospital for he had fainted on the road on seeing the scene. One would think he ought to tell tales about how he lost his teeth in a fight from a Muslim blow. He never did tell such tales. To him, it wasn’t anything worth telling. Maybe it wasn’t. In the evening of the incident, the bamboo swinger came home to apologise. It was an accident. He drank tea and left. However, over the years, grandfather started loosing the rest of his teeth too.

I never understood why the story was never told in a different way. If my parents wanted me to hate Muslims, all they had to do was point me to my grandfather’s dentures and tell me a story about what they did to him. I would have cooked my heart in oils of hatred every time I saw my grandfather eat. It’s not like they didn’t tell me other stories, but in this story, ‘Muslim’ was not the point. In this case, it was just an accident.

After grandfather died, all the relatives came, it was a big gathering. Here, I asked his children again, “Why didn’t you tell me a Muslim did it?” They still answer, “Why would we lie to you?”

My grandmother added in mock jest, “In any case, he had crooked protruding teeth. Good riddance!”

I rolled my tongue over my front teeth, felt the point where one of my front teeth bends in a little and crashes into another, like it is some accident. Grandfather did pass on some bad genes to me.

When my grandmother married my grandfather, he worked the accounts in Shali Store, the government grain store in Srinagar. Grandfather was in his early twenties while she was still 15. The Kabali raid of 1948 had people jittered. Women were taken out of school and married off. If something like the raid happened again, the girl would be one less thing to worry about.

Grandmother says, “My mother never checked his teeth. She did secretly go to check on him at his work place, the store, but only managed to get a glimpse of the back of his neck. Mother came back and said the boy is fine. He can walk upright. That was it. I was married to him.” As my grandmother remembered this, his elder brother wiped a tear and in a choking voice added, “She was too young, she was just too young. She didn’t understand what was going on, she even ran back into the arms of her mother at the time of final send off”.

I try to imagine my grandfather with crooked teeth, with teeth, but I can’t.

Instead, I see him sitting down to shave, his little shaving kit spread out. Working up lather using a badger shaving brush. Taking extra time to shape his toothbrush moustache. Once done with the ritual, his face covered in little newspaper bits to stop the bleeding from little cuts.

Kya chukh wuchaan? Aaz ti aav rath (What are you looking at? I again bled today)”.

In his last days, his sons would give him those shaves. The moustache was long gone. He must have first grown that pencil moustache just when the subcontinent was about to get divided, just when new nations were sprouting. I remember the dates of the wars but I don’t remember the birthdate of my grandfather. Our life stories are just footnotes to a greater story of great wars shaping up an adolescent world.

In the violence that followed 1947, as a new independence war arrived in Kashmir, the story goes, my grandfather, like many others, decided to leave Kashmir. He did get onto one of those Dakota planes ferrying refugees to Delhi. But, the plane refused to take off. It was overloaded. My grandfather was among the people who got off-loaded. The impulse was gone, he turned back home. It is claimed Pamposh colony of Delhi was started by the men that got into those escape planes. This simple gaffe ensured that my grandfather was not going to be a Dilliwalla Kashmiri but stay a Kashmirwalla Kashmiri. In 1990, he was to leave Kashmir in a transport truck meant for cattle. This time there was no rescue. There was no army convoy. No governor. It was an escape.

This was the war that ensured that my grandmother would be pulled out of school and married off at a young age. The joke in the family: “She could have at least been a collector!” Yes, she did teach me the spelling of ‘thank you’ in Hindi. Dhanyawad.

The two got married somewhere in the early 1950s. Soon children were born. They had four. Two sons and two daughters, my father being the eldest. Grandfather joined the state secretariat as a lowly government employee. He had studied till BSc, wanted to study more, but running a family meant finding a secure job. He was born into a big family where the joint family system was still the norm. His father had died just after his birth. Grandfather never could recall his face. Youngest among three brothers, he was raised by his single mother and brothers. And there was the family of step-brothers – his father had married twice. The extended family once had land, lots of land. Over the decades, it was slowly gone, sold off as financials of Pandits went haywire with the land reforms, no preferential treatment for jobs and even denial of jobs on account of religion. In the joint family system of Kashmir back then, everyone pitched in to run the kitchen and expenses. His children would ask for new school shoes.

His youngest daughter remembers, “Papaji had a wicked sense of humour, he would never say ‘No’. He would say, ‘I shall buy you ten’. We soon got to understand, it meant you were not getting any.”

In 1990, my grandfather didn’t want to leave Kashmir. He joined his children in Jammu only after trying to wait out the madness for two more months. In 1989, his youngest daughter was about to get married. He had retired from the government job, but to raise money, he was still working. I was eight at the time. I recall winter evenings he spent counting crisp notes. I was to think my grandfather a rich man. At the time he was working as a cashier for a Punjabi medical wholesaler in Srinagar. I think their bestseller was Boroline. I can smell the warm greasy green of Boroline when I think of those years and winters in Kashmir.

Then I remember Jammu, and an afternoon he was hit by tail of big bull ‘Billo Bel’, Grandfather smells of Zandu balm. In those early days of Jammu, I remember him writing and receiving letters. Yellow postcards and blue envelope inlays. From and to relatives that were now spread all over the country. Often the letter would end, ‘Rest you know what has happened to us’.

In Jammu, he often took me on walks. His long, excruciating walks, familiarising me to the new place. His habit of getting up early in the morning. His habit of walking steps ahead of his wife who would walk too slow. His habit of making weird, funny sounds to make his grandchildren laugh. His habit of working the garden of his new house in Jammu.

We finally started to build a new house in Jammu in 1996. It was finished only in 2015. A vague copy of our house in Srinagar, but done in cement instead of wood. We moved into the new structure even before the house had windows. The first monsoon, water just flooded in from the wall. A cup in the kitchen went afloat on floor like a boat on Dal. We laughed and laughed. It took two more years to get the windows done. The money was raised by selling off the house in Kashmir. Sold off to an old neighbour who for years persisted in convincing us that Kashmir was futile. The land for this house in Jammu was bought in the late 1960s, a direct consequence of communal polarisation of Hindus and Muslims of the valley during the Parmeshwari Handoo case of 1967, when a young Pandit woman married an older Muslim man. The violence that followed scared Pandits and some of them started looking for an escape strategy. It was his brothers who suggested buying a piece of land in Jammu. This was well before politics of ‘Love Jihad’ was employed in Indian mainlands. Some Pandits had already started preparing for what seemed inevitable. It is as if Kashmir was a little laboratory where the future of India was getting shaped by some mad social scientists high on delusions of paradise and a Ram rajya.

Grandfather’s elder son-in-law remembered him as a true ‘Sanghi Batta‘. It was a term often used for a Kashmiri Pandit member of the Sangh, of which RSS is the spurious fountainhead. In 1990, among others, Sanghi Battas, or anyone suspected of being a Sanghi Batta were the prime targets of the Islamic flavoured Kashmiri terrorists. Muslims were convinced Shiv sainiks were coming. I couldn’t think of my grandfather as a Sanghi Batta. I know in the 1970s he had taken part in an agitation over closure of a local ancient temple in our neighborhood. Like most Pandits, during the era of Nehru, he would have followed Nehru and during the time of Indira Gandhi, he would have sworn by Gandhi. No different from most Pandits who now swear by Modi. I think he did admire Vajpayee, and followed the Agra summit with much hope.

I never heard my grandfather talk about the Sangh. Like most Kashmiris he was addicted to the news; and like most Kashmiris he knew the politics of the land by heart. A passion for news meant piles of newspapers and every couple of months, he would ask me to carry all the junk paper to the local raddiwalla. And for this job, I would charge and he would pay me ten rupees. This way, every year I would make at least 100 rupees. And often using them, I would buy comics or a book. My grandfather taught me to love books, he would take me to the library and I was free to read anything I liked. We would often have a mock fight over the right to read a book first. We read Manto, Sartre and the biography of Brigitte Bardot together.

He once fell from a ladder while trying to change a light bulb. I laughed.

Then I moved out of Jammu to pursue higher studies. I got busy. When I finished studying, I moved to Delhi looking for a job. I remember, he told me Delhi had lot of book stores and book fairs, he gave me a small handwritten note with a list books he wanted me to buy for him:

  1. In the Woods of God Realization by Shri Rama Tiratha
  2. Yoga by Patanjali
  3. Vairagya Satakam by Raja Bharthari (Bharthari)
  4. Sunder Lahari by Sri Sankaracharya (Advita Ashram)

He was much older now and discovering God all over again, I was young and leaving the fold of religion. I promised him the books but never got around to buying them. I got busy. I still have the note in my pocket. I want to drown it in the lake at Harmokh where ashes of many a Pandit lay in rest.

His blood started clotting. Diabetes had taken a toll. We took him to Kashmir. He couldn’t recognise the crossing that led to his old house. He met his old neighbours. We came back, he got a clot in his brain. He had operations.

His memory started fading. He wanted me to get married. He confused things. His speech slurred. He thought I was married. He named my imaginary wife ­– Chandani. He had to be prompted lines while talking to me on phone. “I am not alright!”

He started fading. He faded into a world of his own. We tried to get him back as often as we could. We played games with him. We would ask him questions from his past. We would ask him his name. We would ask him our names. Of all the answers, some would be more easily forthcoming than the other. He would often not answer at all. But he would rattle out names of his dead brothers and dead relatives like they were still alive. Often, all this questioning would irritate him. His brows would raise and nose would twitch. He wouldn’t talk, but one could see the anger as he grit his gums. One day, when one granddaughter asked him the routine questions, he just snapped and said, “Why should I tell you the name of my brothers? Who are you?” That’s probably the last time he got angry. I remember, in Jammu, in the first year of our exile, living on a rooftop storeroom, he broke the TV set once. He did have an angry streak.

He stopped talking. We placed a radio next to his bed. It played Kashmiri songs all day. He became a child. He would run for cover if someone raised his voice. His wife would feed him and clean him. His bed sometimes smelt of urine. Much to my grandmother’s annoyance, I would sometime lie in it while he was being given a bath. The songs were from home.

He was locked inside the house and not allowed out. He would ask to be let out. Newspapers in Jammu are full of lost old Kashmiri men. All the local shopkeepers were told to keep a watch on him. Inform us if he steps out. One day he sneaked out, father followed him, keeping a distance. He took the route to the raddiwalla and managed to reach back home safely. He stopped walking.

He was now often ill. More visits to doctors and hospitals.

When I received the call. I knew it was serious this time. I wanted to be there when it happened. I was ready to let him go. I kept flying back to him. It happened at a bad time. There were communal clashes in Jammu over violence in what came to be known in media as the ‘Ramban firing incident’. There was now army out even in Jammu and stone pelting from Hindus. In the hospital, I thumb wrestled my grandfather. Seeing us fight, a Kashmiri Sikh woman from the next hospital bed claimed, “Pandit ji hasn’t lost memory. He is here”. I know, I was just playing tricks with his instincts. Or, maybe, he was playing the trick on me. I wasn’t there when it happened. I cried alone in a bathroom. The last time I had cried in a bathroom, he was fighting my mother over something that now seems inconsequential.

A few months ago, a Muslim man from Srinagar called to offer condolences. He turned out to be an old colleague who read the ‘first death anniversary’ message in the local newspaper.

I remember the last time my grandfather laughed. In his lost days, just before he stopped talking, he would laugh at a joke my father cooked up. My father would press the long Kashmiri nose of his father and utter an old Kashmiri saying:

Bragya nas chaey hej”
Stork, your nose is crooked!)

Grandfather would reply with a toothless smile:

Nat kya chu syod
What is straight in this world?

Vinayak Razdan is a writer